BRANDON-The McCook Central/Montrose girls basketball team started red hot and stumbled into the playoffs.
And Thursday's Class A SoDak 16 game at Brandon Valley High School had both surges and stumbles, but the MCM girls are returning to the state tournament for a second straight year, after defeating Big East Conference rival Beresford 59-53.
"We didn't necessarily know where we'd be at the start of the season, but our girls worked hard and earned this success," MCM coach Doug Durfee said, noting the team lost a pair of players now playing college basketball in Morgan Koepsell (Black Hills State) and Natalie Gottlob (Dakota Wesleyan).
The Fighting Cougars (18-4) will be seeded No. 6 at the state tournament, opening with a 5 p.m. March 14 game against Todd County at the Sioux Falls Arena.
The contest was the third between the two teams this season, both teams splitting the first two games. Prior to Thursday, Beresford had won 15 games in a row, while MCM lost four of its final eight regular season games after a 12-0 start.
"We had to battle some adversity at the end of the season, and we had some losses we didn't want to take, but I think it made our team better," Durfee said.
A steady diet of inside scoring helped deliver the victory for the Fighting Cougars, who were seeded No. 9 in the SoDak 16 round. Six-foot sophomore Madisen Koepsell had 18 points, while 6-foot-3 junior Abigail Van Ruler had 17 points. McKenna Kranz helped lead the perimeter play, tallying 15 points.
The inside duo teamed up to give MCM the lead for good early in the fourth quarter, with Van Ruler splitting a pair of free throws and Koepsell following up with a three-point play to lead 51-47 with 5:16 remaining.
Beresford got the lead down to two points and had chances to tie the game, but Jacy Pulse's mid-lane runner put MCM up 55-51 with 1:32 to go, and MCM adding free throws down the stretch. Pulse scored nine points, with five points in the final 100 seconds of the game.
"It was everybody making plays for us," Durfee said. "We have so many solid players that are all about playing off each other and making each other better."
Kranz said the difference between the first two meetings and Thursday's showdown was MCM worked to be physical on defense.
"We knew we had to be tough, because we knew what Beresford was going to bring to the table," she said. "Our defense had to step up, and we made the plays to win the game."
Beresford's full-court trap defense yielded turnovers in the first half, as the Watchdogs embarked on a 19-6 run in the midst of the second quarter, leading by as many eight points in the final minute before halftime. But a Kranz bucket and a three-point play from Van Ruler cut the Beresford halftime lead down to 33-30.
McCook Central/Montrose (18-4): Madisen Koepsell 18, Abigail Van Ruler 17, McKenna Kranz 15, Jacy Pulse 9.
Beresford (20-3): Alana Berglund 15, Sydney Nelson 10, Kennedy Goblirsch 8, Cali Boden 5, Jessica Niles 9, Kara Niles 6.
MCM 16 30 44 59
B 12 33 43 53